Just a couple of months removed from one of the highest moments of his career, Grady Champion couldn’t have been much lower.
Less than an hour before he was scheduled to hit the stage at the Greater Ozarks Blues Festival in Springfield, Mo., almost two summers ago, the winner of the 2010 International Blues Challenge (IBC) was issued an ultimatum from his guitar player.
Pay me more money or I’m not going to play.
Talk about having your back shoved up against the proverbial wall.
“I basically had a young guitar player with me at that time – and after driving eight hours to get to that show, we get to an hour before it – and he told me he wasn’t going to play if he didn’t get some more money,” Champion said. “At first, I didn’t know what to do … somebody trying to strong-arm me? But I had a budget that I had to stay with, so he was out.”
Stunned, shocked, dismayed and disappointed though he may have been, Champion still managed to pull himself together and found a way to complete the task at hand, which was to entertain those in attendance.
“I just refused to be handicapped by that situation. Something told me to pick up the phone. So I called the blues society (Blues Society of the Ozarks) and asked them to send me the best guitar player they could. And they sent Nathan Keck,” said Champion. “And he learned on the run and has been with me ever since. He’s been a real blessing. Just what we needed at the time. He’s fit in really well with us and we’re all just growing together.”
While it certainly worked out in his favor in the long run, the attempted hijacking by his former guitar player is about the only bum thing that’s happened to the singer/songwriter/harp player since he was crowned IBC winner in February of 2010.
The rest, as they say, has all been gravy for Grady.
“Man, it’s been unbelievable (winning the IBC). Just unbelievable. I probably wouldn’t have a career right now if I hadn’t won the IBC,” he said. “It was really hard (up to that point) because I just couldn’t get anything to break through. People just wasn’t paying me any attention. And it takes a lot of money to stay out on the road and stay in front of people. I really didn’t have the support and backing I needed until I won the IBC.”
Flush with that success, Champion entered into the recording studio and emerged with the highly-touted Dreamin’ (GSM Records).
And the reaction to Champion’s fifth full-length compact disc has been very positive, to say the least.
“It’s been awesome. It’s been nominated for Soul Blues Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards, and a single off the album, “Thank You For Giving Me The Blues” is up for song of the year at the BMA’s,” he said. “And then it was nominated for Album of the Year at the Blues Critic Awards and also had a single (“Make That Monkey Jump”) nominated for Single of the Year. So we got quite a few nominations and it’s been a real blessing.”
That’s quite an impressive coup, especially when considering that “Thank You For Giving Me The Blues” and “Make That Monkey Jump” were late arrivers to the party and very easily might have been left off of Dreamin’.
“Well, three of the songs off the album, I wrote in Newark, Delaware and all three turned out to be really good songs,” said Champion. “Zac Harmon (producer, guitarist) called me up and said, ‘Grady, you need about three more songs to finish the album up.’ And I wrote the songs – “Make That Monkey Jump,” “Thank You For Giving Me The Blues” and “Laugh, Smile, Cry Sometimes” – all in one night. I wrote “Monkey” first and then I went to sleep. Later on that night I woke up and wrote “Laugh” and then went back to sleep. Then when I woke up early the next morning … ‘woke up this morning with a lot on my mind’ … and I wrote “Thank You.”
Writing songs on the road as he bounces from hotel room to hotel room is nothing new for Champion. Matter of fact, that style of penning songs seems to agree pretty well with him.
“When I’m touring, I’m collecting a lot of information mentally and I’m also capturing different situations with my iPhone or recorder. If I run across something that I think might be a good idea for a song, I put it down,” he said. “And then I go back and visit my ideas. I’m starting to mature more as a writer and I think a lot of that is due to just being out on the road touring.”
While it may seem that Champion became a veritable ‘overnight sensation’ after besting over 150 other entries to take top prize in the IBC, that couldn’t be any farther from the truth.
The truth is, Champion was a veteran of the road already, having played the blues for 17 years before that fateful winter weekend in Memphis when he was anointed as IBC champion.
It’s a wonder that Champion even decided to stroll down the blues highway to begin with.
The youngest of 28 children, Champion, was turned on to music at an early age thanks to singing with his family in church in Canton, Mississippi.
“Man, my momma and them really rocked that church when I was growing up. Imagine being in Mississippi with a Baptist church and that church was rockin,’” said Champion. “Seeing momma and them play in church and then me singing in there when I was about 8 years old really got me going.”
So being brought up singing in a southern Baptist church automatically equals a career playing the blues, right?
Uh … no.
Champion first turned to rap music as an outlet for his creative juices and energy.
“I recorded a rap album and even released a rap single. I’ve even got footage of me rapping on a TV show in Jackson,” he said. “I really didn’t get into the blues until I was about 23 years old.”
But after the rap scene started to become a place he didn’t want to be, with all the fights at the clubs he was performing at and with all the negative lyrics that can go hand-in-hand with the genre, Champion decided to abandon that ship.
“Well, I was a single father at the time and really wanted to start performing for a more mature audience,” he said. “So I started to move away from rap. I knew something about the blues – more the Malaco kind of blues – because that’s some of the music we were raised on.”
Champion really fell head-over-heels and started his personal history lesson in the blues after being turned on to Chess Records’ iconic roster of stars when he was 23 years old.
“Man, when I heard Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf and stuff like that, it was a done deal. I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to do nothing else but sing the blues,’” he said.
“And I bought my first harmonica when I was 25 years old, back in 1994. I used to sleep with Sonny Boy Williamson’s Chess Collection playing all night long. I saw a study that year where a doctor said the brain never sleeps, and I said if that’s the case, even though my body is asleep, my brain will still be listening to that music. And a year later, I was recording the blues.”
His first blues album, Goin’ Back Home, was issued in 1998, followed in succession by 1999’s Payin’ For My Sins and 2 Days Short of a Week in 2001. Those later two Shanachie albums are about to once again see the light of day.
“I’m still going to promote Dreamin,’ but I went back last year and bought my masters from Shanachie. So I took every song I wrote off those two albums, which was 17 songs, and I’m going to put all those on one CD called Shanachie Days,” Champion said. “I’m going to release that one in May.”
And there’s no doubt that CD release will be followed up by plenty of hard-earned road miles, a process that Champion and his mates are well versed in at this point in time.
“It all comes from me being out on that road in 2011. Me and the band’s done a lot of touring and we’re not through. We’re getting ready to go out now on a month-and-a-half tour, so we’ve got a lot of work left to do,” he said. “And touring is very important. It lets the people see what’s going on. You have to be able to tour to really make a difference (in how an album sells). I’m really starting to understand about touring, for one thing. And what it takes to tour. We’ve met a lot of great people and being on the road this past year has been a great experience.”
And Champion knows that life on the road, along with a willing support staff at the record label, is what has really helped to set Dreamin’ apart from his previous four offerings.
“It (the creative process) was about the same for this album. I go with what I write, which is what I did on my albums for Shanachie,” he said. “The thing was, they (Shanachie) just didn’t put a lot into promoting the record. I mean, you can make a great record, but if people don’t know it’s out there, it doesn’t do you any good.”
After Keck’s ‘trial by fire’ of going from lead guitarist and vocalist in Branson, Missouri’s Underground Blues Division earlier in the afternoon, to climbing on stage and jamming with Champion’s band at the Greater Ozarks Blues Festival later that same evening, things finally seem fairly stable for the Grady Champion band.
“I think Nathan has become an even greater guitar player since he’s been with us. He came from a more rock-type background,” said Champion. “But I call him the ‘baby Steve Cropper,’ because he can play anything. We were riding from Springfield, Missouri (when he first joined) to Utah and he was practicing the whole way, learning the songs on the run. And man, by the time we got to Utah, he was ready. He catches on real quick.”
Kind of like the way that after a mere 17 years of hard life in the trenches, fans of the blues are starting to quickly catch on to the glorious tunes that Grady Champion is churning out.
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2012 Blues Blast Magazine